Slavery and the Black Family

I note on FB an attempt to show that the use of uncle and auntie to refer to black men and women is a residue of slavery and an indication of the damage done to the family. This in a nutshell is the problem, of social media in particular and the internet in general: Generally well-intentioned people who feel they have a right to their opinion on subjects about which they know little or nothing.

In many societies, kinship and friendship terms overlap, hence the problem with some of the references to the brethren of Jesus.   Even in Ancient Greece, some precise kinship terms are attested only in certain periods and in certain communities, much as English "eme", mother's brother, was once useful. These things vary of course, and in Serbia, people in the North are less precise in their kinship nomenclature than in the South, and  traditionally one used  "brother" to refer more generally to cousins and even fellow-Serbs.  

Do you suppose that the typical greeting in "the community," of "Hey, bro" indicates a lack of certainty about paternity that was the result of slavery?  If so, then the follow-up, "What's up?" could be a sign of complete dependence on Hollywood, which stole and transformed the African trickster rabbit into Bugs Bunny?  On the internet, it would make perfect sense.

Here in America, white and black children often are taught to call a family friend aunty or uncle, while in the South some form of Maum/Mom was often used by polite white children to show respect for an elderly black woman.  Kindness and good manners are not racist.

There is no such thing as the "African family" because African is a geographical term. Family patterns in Africa vary from race to race, ethnic group to ethnic group, tribe to tribe. Polygeny was common, and studies of polygynous societies reveals a pattern of strains and instability more prominent than one finds in monogamous societies. To back up a claim that slavery destabilized the family, one would have to document the family types in the African tribal societies from which the slaves came.

If slavery were the major cause of the decline in family formation and stability among African Americans, one would expect a steady progression to stability with each generation since the end of slavery. Alas, that is not at all the case.

Quite simply, it is neither rational nor fair to make the claim that the use of auntie and uncle is an indication of what slavery did to black families. It is also insulting to the many black families that survived and  thrived under difficult circumstances.

Of course one tendency in the argument I am debunking is to look at slaves in particular and black men and women in general as pathetic losers who could not manage to respond constructively to their situation. One of the important contributions of my Marxist friend Eugene Genovese was to show the extent to which slaves carved out a large degree of autonomy, partly by playing upon the Christian conscience of their masters. All this South-bashing is designed to make Southern whites ashamed of their parents and ancestors, but it has precisely the same effect on black Americans. The politics of hate poisons everything it touches.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    I belonged to a group in which one member was African American. A visitor came one evening who had been invited by the African American member. We always invited a visitor to speak if he felt comfortable about it. In this case, the visitor referred to the African American member as father. I don’t think the member was the visitor’s father but I felt like there was a secret that this visitor revealed.

  2. James D. says:

    I attended a Catholic high school which was a mix of ethnic groups, with Polish, Irish and Italian composing the majority. All of my Italian friends had so many cousins that I couldn’t believe it. Not only did they count their second and third cousins, who all lived in close proximity, but they counted any good family friends who were also Italian as “cousins.” Being Irish, I had cousins, which consisted of my first cousins, and that was it.

  3. Vince Cornell says:

    I’ve heard some black commentators complain that it’s the racist welfare system that drove black men out of their homes. Because the money would only be given to households where there was no man in the house, the men had to leave and live somewhere else and even teach their children to lie about whether they’d ever seen their father when asked by social workers. My question is, what kind of a man sells his family for a few extra dollars? It’s one thing to have to seek work that takes one out of the home, but it’s entirely another thing to just sell out one’s children for a hand out. Perhaps I’m too harsh, but I have a hard time being sympathetic with folks like that.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The welfare state certainly did damage, but the males are guilty of abandoning their own children, but promiscuous women are no less responsible.

  5. G says:

    Charles Murray’s book, “Losing Ground” provides a thought provoking a thoughtful analysis of how the specific implementation of social welfare programs in the US from 1950-1980 adversely impacted family structures among impoverished families. I believe it provides helpful background information relating to the topic of this thread.

    A couple of the comments above seem to generalize from the particular, which is prone to introduce invalid inferences into the process of discursive reasoning on this subject.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    To refer obliquely to “a couple of the comments”–by which I assume you mean a related pair and not just several–is neither helpful nor completely fair. Criticism is expected and invited. That is why I believe it would not be taken amiss to point out that just about everyone who talks about public policy recalls Murray’s book, which merely documented what many people knew long before. Murray, while his argument was an excellent contribution to discussion, made the mistake of blaming the Welfare State for problems of a far more distant origin, but that would require an anthropologist.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming, that is because the welfare state invariably treats the symptoms and not the underlying causes of our human failings. To do otherwise would to “blame the victim.”

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Well, trying to change my direction in midstream, I lost my balance and fell off my (high?) horse.